Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)

     I just finished reading Maria Mitchell, Life, Letters, and Journals, a book compiled by one of her sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, in 1896. An American astronomer, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet using her father's telescope in 1847. Some years previously, King Frederick VI of
Denmark had established gold medal prizes to be given to the first discoverer of a "telescopic comet" (too faint to be seen with the naked eye). She received one of the gold medal prizes and the associated worldwide fame for her discovery. 

   Maria Mitchell was the first woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850). Mitchell was also one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869).

One section of the book describes her visit to the observatory of the Collegio Romano housed in the monastery behind the Church of St. Ignasio during her first European tour in 1857-58. An excerpt from the book describing part of her reaction to being in Rome follows.

"I said to myself, 'This is the land of Galileo, and this is the city in which he was tried. I knew of no sadder picture in the history of science than that of the old man, Galileo, worn by a long life of scientific research, weak and feeble, trembling before that tribunal whose frown was torture, and declaring that to be false which he knew to be true. And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God—forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God. It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict. Galileo was the first to see the four moons of Jupiter; and when he announced the fact that four such moons existed, of course he was met by various objections from established authority. One writer declared that as astrologers had got along very well without these planets, there could be no reason for their starting into existence. But his greatest heresy was this: He was tried, condemned, and punished for declaring that the sun was the centre of the system, and that the earth moved around it; also, that the earth turned on its axis. For teaching this, Galileo was called before the assembled cardinals of Rome, and, clad in black cloth, was compelled to kneel, and to promise never again to teach that the earth moved. It is said that when he arose he whispered, 'It does move!' He was tried at the Hall of Sopre Minerva. In fewer than two hundred years from that time the Church of St. Ignasio was built, and the monastery on whose walls the instruments of the modern observatory stand. It is a very singular fact, but one which seems to show that even in science 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,' that the spot where Galileo was tried is very near the site of the present observatory, to which the pope was very liberal."

    At the time of her visit the Collegio Romano Observatory was under the directorship of Pietro Angelo Secchi, the renowned Jesuit astronomer. Mitchell's initial request to Secchi to visit the observatory is described below.

"I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary,—that my woman's robe must not brush the seats of learning. The Father's refusal was seen in his face at once, and I felt that I had done something highly improper. The Father said that he would have been most happy to have me visit him, but he had not the power—it was a religious institution—he had already applied to his superior, who was not willing to grant permission—the power lay with the Holy Father or one of his cardinals."

    Eventually Mitchell did obtain permission to visit the observatory and when Secchi received notification of the authorization, he did not delay in making arrangements for her visit. During the visit Mitchell noted that the spectroscopic method of observing starlight was used by Secchi and wrote that "In order to be successful in this kind of observation, the telescope must keep very accurately the motion of the earth in its axis; and so the papal government furnishes nice machinery to keep up with this motion,—the same motion for declaring whose existence Galileo suffered! The two hundred years had done their work."

Free ebook versions of Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals can be obtained here.


David Sparks

I retired in 2005 after 40 years of research and teaching at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (24 years), the University of Pennsylvania (8 years) and the Baylor College of Medicine (8 years). Photography is my retirement hobby.

Nature photography, especially bird photography, combines a number of things that I really enjoy: bird-watching, being outdoors, photography, travel, messing about with computers, and learning new skills and concepts.  I now spend much of my time engaged in these activities.

David Sibley in the preface to The Sibley Guide to Birds wrote "Birds are beautiful, in spectacular as well as subtle ways; their colors, shapes, actions, and sounds are among the most aesthetically pleasing in nature."  My goal is to acquire images that capture the beauty and uniqueness of selected species as well as images that highlight the engaging behaviors the birds exhibit.